Past week Germany’s vice chancellor and foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who recently replaced Frank-Walter Steinmeier in this function, paid a two-day-long official visit to Ukraine. Characteristically, this first visit of the chief of German diplomacy to Ukraine is happening against the backdrop of regular violations of an umpteenth ceasefire in Donbas, recently personally negotiated by him in Munich during the meeting with his Ukrainian and Russian fellow foreign ministers in the “Normandy format.”
Having received the baton from Steinmeier in the relay race towards a settlement in Donbas, Gabriel was already able to see for himself how limited the possibilities of diplomacy are. His words, “even the most intense efforts at negotiation will not yield a result if there is not enough political will to implement agreements” testify to this. He said that when he saw ceasefire violations, which was to be enforced after February 20, while the promises to withdraw the separatists’ heavy weapons from the division line in Donbas remain empty.
It is quite obvious that the settlement in Donbas will be the key issue in the talks between Germany’s vice chancellor and Ukraine’s leadership. Indeed, despite numerous meetings of foreign ministers in the “Normandy format” and the West’s urging Russia to fulfill its commitments under the Minsk Accords and influence the separatists it backs, there has been no progress in the implementation of the first three items of Minsk 2: sustainable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy vehicles and weapons, and granting OSCE access for monitoring of the withdrawal on the occupied territory.
So far, Gabriel’s words about the prematurity of lifting sanctions against Russia due to lack of appreciable progress in implementing the Minsk agreements inspire hope. “We are not in a position to lift sanctions, despite the fact that presumably everyone in Europe wishes we could improve relations with Russia,” said Gabriel as quoted by Deutsche Welle. “Now the prerequisites for this are simply lacking, because Ukraine has not much room for maneuver, Russia is waiting for the results of elections in France and Germany, and as far as the US President Donald Trump is concerned, there is no certainty whatsoever that he is interested in Ukraine at all,” said Dr. Stefan Meister, head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia with the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP), in his interview to Deutsche Welle. According to the German expert, at present we can rather only speak of alleviating the situation for the population in the region, implement relief initiatives, and provide technical assistance. It would be also worthwhile to try and ensure a better enforcement of ceasefire regime. “At the moment, it is simply impossible to do more,” says Meister.
Steffen Halling, expert with the Foundation for Science and Politics, does not see a possible breakthrough due to controversy between political and security issues, which are differently interpreted by Ukraine and Russia. Besides, “it is Russia that displays military activity in a neighboring country, so Ukraine certainly has the right to defend itself.”
The Day asked some experts to tell about Kyiv’s expectations of the German foreign minister’s visit and suggest how Ukraine should ensure further support on the part of Germany, where after the September elections Angela Merkel could be replaced as federal chancellor by Social Democrat Martin Schulz.
“BERLIN UNDERSTANDS THAT UKRAINE’S STORE OF CONCESSIONS IS EXHAUSTED”
Serhii SOLODKYI, first deputy director, Institute of World Politics:
“Germany has supported us throughout all recent years since the start of Russia’s aggression. But Berlin was equally interested in the enforcement of the Minsk agreements, just like Ukraine, actually. I would not pin big hopes on this visit being able to add some change to Germany’s previous approaches. We can say that the German minister is still being introduced to the situation. Undoubtedly, he has shaped his own views on the conflict; but such visits could obviously enrich the new minister’s ideas with some important details.
“I would view this visit on the whole as a visit of support. Indeed, it proves that Ukraine remains one of the priority directions in Germany’s foreign policy. Our views (those of Ukraine and Germany) might differ somewhat at the settlement stage (gradual or parallel settlement). Yet the experience of the past three years shows that Berlin takes Kyiv’s arguments into account. Clearly, before at least basic security terms are respected, it would be near-sighted to start the political stage of settlement. Ukraine has more than once demonstrated its political will to settlement and to finding compromises, losing a piece of its territory each time afterwards: be it the case of Crimea, or the so-called Minsk 1, or Minsk 2. I guess Berlin realizes that Ukraine has exhausted its store of concessions.
“Ukraine needs to bring its message across and it should urge Berlin to pressurize Russia more actively, be it political or economic pressure. The imminent German election will hardly considerably change Germany’s treatment of the Kremlin. Martin Schulz is a sharper and more explicit critic of Putin’s policy than even Angela Merkel.”
“GERMANY IS PREPARED TO HELP – BUT ONLY ON CONDITION THAT UKRAINE WILL EFFICIENTLY DO ITS SHARE OF WORK”
Mykola KAPITONENKO, Institute for Social and Economic Research:
“Germany’s position towards Ukraine shapes 90 percent of the EU strategy towards our country. From this perspective it is hard to overestimate the visit of the federal foreign minister. Yet, unlike his Polish and British counterparts, Sigmar Gabriel will come with a mission that will somewhat resemble all missions of German politicians of the recent years, who have visited Kyiv. It will be a combination of pressure and pragmatism: the usual cocktail Berlin treats us to. Germany is prepared to help – but only on condition that Ukraine will efficiently do its share of work. This approach will hardly change, and the new minister will probably again emphasize exactly such a formula. Ukraine is interesting to Germany, much more interesting than, say, to France. Berlin would sincerely like to forward the settlement in the east of Ukraine, but they understand – just as well as we do – that simple solutions do not exist. Finding a balance between a policy towards Russia, European leadership, and a stand in the Ukrainian issue is a tough task for Gabriel. It is very hard to simultaneously satisfy the expectations of German voters and Ukrainian people. Yet we should remember that Germany remains our most important partner in the EU, a partner who is prepared to help and openly share our own vision. It would be good to use this opportunity to look for common elements in the future vision of Europe’s security architecture.”